With her announced resignation, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will soon be forgotten by all but late-night comedians desperate for a punch line. That’s not simply because of her leading role in the epically failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website, HealthCare.gov. It’s the fate of virtually all Cabinet officials, especially those who head departments like HHS.
But whether you’re among the 36% of Americans who have a favorable view of Obamacare or the 53% who do not, it’s important to underscore the lessons of Sebelius’ tenure. Her widely acknowledged incompetence in overseeing the implementation of a major new program is one of the reasons that record numbers of Americans think the government has too much power and have low and declining levels of trust in the government to do the right thing. Whether you’re liberal, conservative or libertarian, that’s not a good thing.
Last fall, when HealthCare.gov went live and then crashed again and again, Sebelius’ response was not to take responsibility or explain why the job was botched so badly but to plead for slack from customers. “Hopefully [website users will] give us the same slack they give Apple ... If there’s not quite the operational excellence right away, we’ll continue to press for that,” she told the media. “Apple, you know, has a few more resources than we have to roll out technology, and a few more people who’ve been working on the system for a while, and no one is calling on Apple to not sell devices for a year or to, you know, get out of the business because the whole thing is a failure.”
That reaction helped explain why HHS botched the job so badly to begin with. The government spent upwards of $677 million on the design and implementation of HealthCare.gov, so Sebelius’ claim wasn’t just misleading but strikingly out of touch with reality. The fact is that if Apple put out rotten products year after year, it would be out of business, as the rotting hulks of once giant bankrupted companies can attest. That President Obama parroted the same line didn’t help matters.
As the HealthCare.gov debacle continued, Sebelius also claimed that it took her a while to break the news to Obama that the website was buggier than a porch light on a summer evening. Despite the lack of extensive tests that commercial operations run on sites before they go live, Sebelius told CNN that the President had no warning that the site wasn't up to its challenges. That helped explain the President’s weak response to the debacle but hardly excuses either his or his Secretary’s actions.
Supporters of the Affordable Care Act are quick to brush aside the early problems with implementing the President’s signature legislative achievement. “Kathleen Sebelius is resigning because Obamacare has won,” crowed Ezra Klein at Vox, the new “deep journalism” website that is supposed to be beyond ideology. But in fact, Sebelius is hustling out of town before any of the most important questions about Obamacare have been answered.
Among them: Of the 7.1 million people who reportedly signed up for health care in the individual market, how many were previously uninsured? How many have actually paid for coverage? Are they the right mix of young and old, healthy and sick? We know none of this information, which is not simply incidental as to whether Obamacare is “winning.”
Sebelius’ abrupt resignation, then, is the fitting capstone of a Cabinet tenure that did nothing to inspire feelings of competency and trust in government in a century that is so far replete with revelations of bipartisan secret surveillance, financial mismanagement of the nation and failed foreign policy.
We deserved better than Kathleen Sebelius. And we should demand more from our public officials, with the same vigor we use when buying, say, Apple products.